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Armed Services Field Programs to Combat Servicemember Suicides

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 18, 2009 – One servicemember suicide “is too many,” and each military service now has programs designed to combat the problem, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters at a Pentagon news conference today.

About one-third of the suicides in the military involve members who’ve never deployed overseas, Gates said.

Gates also said he’s been told that broken relationships constitute one of the principal causes of servicemember suicide.

“And it’s not hard not to imagine that repeated deployments don’t have an impact on those relationships,” Gates said, noting that he didn’t have any data on hand to support that contention.

“But, it just seems to me [to be] common sense, that repeated deployments have to weigh very heavily on relationships,” Gates said. The Army’s previous 15-month deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan “were a real strain on many of our men and women in uniform, as well,” he added. Army units now deploy for 12 months.

Servicemember suicide is an issue the Defense Department “takes very seriously,” Gates said.

All of the armed services are working to prevent servicemember suicide, Gates said, and the Army, in particular, is engaged aggressively in that endeavor.

The Army’s anti-suicide program, Gates said, appears similar to efforts that seek to identify and assist soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Noncommissioned officers are trained how to recognize if junior-rank soldiers are depressed or seem disconnected from associates and their families.

“I’ve seen some of the training materials that they’ve provided, and I think that they are doing the appropriate things,” Gates said of the Army’s efforts to combat suicide.

Later in the day, a group of senior military officers from across the services told members of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee about their suicide prevention efforts. Before the start of the hearing, committee chairman Sen. Ben Nelson said the military services have seen increased rates of servicemember suicides between calendar years 2007 and 2008.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli said he and other senior leaders are working hard to solve the soldier-suicide issue. The Army has stood up an anti-suicide task force that recently issued an interactive video that attacks “that issue of stigma,” Chiarelli said. Some soldiers have been reluctant to seek help for psychological issues because they fear it would affect their careers or that would be perceived as weak for doing so.

Years of war and overseas deployments have “undeniably put a strain” on the Army’s soldiers, Chiarelli said, noting that the effects of stress have resulted in increased incidence of suicide.

“We must find ways to relieve some of this stress; particularly the stress caused by deployments and frequent lengthy periods of separation,” Chiarelli said.

Even though the demand to deploy soldiers overseas is expected to remain high for some time, Chiarelli said, the Army is “focused on mitigating the stress as much as possible.”

Suicide ranks as the third-leading cause of death in the Navy, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Patrick M. Walsh said at the hearing. The Navy, he said, now is embarked on a comprehensive suicide-prevention program.

Sailor suicide also “destroys families, devastates communities [and] unravels the cohesive social fabric and morale inside our commands,” Walsh said. The Navy, he said, is instructing its leaders to look for and connect with those individuals seemingly beset with relationship, financial, legal, and work troubles and exhibiting deteriorating physical and mental health, including depression.

The Navy must also “eliminate the perceived stigma, shame and dishonor of asking for help,” Walsh said. Naval commanders, he said, have an important, supportive role in this endeavor.

“The tragic loss of a Marine to suicide is deeply felt by all of us who remain behind,” Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos said. The Marines, he said, lost 41 members to suicide in 2008, 33 in 2007, and 25 in 2006.

“That is unacceptable; we are taking action to turn this around,” Amos said, noting that the Marine Corps is committed “to fix” the suicide issue. Data shows, he said, that the most likely Marine to die by suicide is a young Caucasian male, ranging in age from 18 to 24, and between the ranks of private and sergeant.

The most likely cause of Marine suicides “is a failed relationship with a woman,” Amos said, noting that men are more likely to take their lives. The most common methods of Marine suicide, he said, are gunshots and hanging, similar to civilian statistics.

Suicide prevention, Amos said, is required training at Marine boot camps, for all new officers, and is incorporated throughout the Corps’ officer, noncommissioned officer, and enlisted professional development education systems.

“Our NCOs have the day-to-day contact with Marines, and therefore, the best opportunity to see changes in behavior and other problems that can identify Marines in need of further assistance,” Amos said. “As a result, we are developing a high-impact leadership training program focused on our noncommissioned officers and our corpsmen.”

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. William M. Fraser III said his service is “doing all we can to focus on suicide prevention, while heightening awareness and exploring new approaches on this issue affecting our Air Force and airmen.”

With today’s sustained operational tempo, Fraser said, the Air Force is taking steps to ensure that its servicemembers are mentally prepared for deployments and re-deployments as they are prepared physically and professionally.

“We continue to make strides in implementing our Air Force suicide prevention program,” Fraser said, “in further enhancing our psychological health treatment and our management programs, and in strengthening our continued partnerships with our sister services and our interagency colleagues.”

Despite the successes, Fraser said, one suicide remains too many.

“And so we remain committed to these programs – individually and collectively – as a part of a larger effort to take care of our Air Force’s most valuable assets, its people,” Fraser said.

Contact Author

Robert M. Gates
Army Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli
Navy Adm. Patrick M. Walsh
Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos
Air Force Gen. William M. Fraser III

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